Tactical Nukes: Armageddon on the Installment Plan

How’s this for a nice little nightmare? Imagine that Iran responds to another Qassem Soleimani-style provocation with a missile barrage that sinks a $40-billion aircraft carrier with 6,000 personnel on board. The US response is ferocious. But then comes the unexpected: a nuclear-tipped SLBM, or submarine-launched ballistic missile, that scores a direct hit on central Tehran, incinerating buildings and killing civilians by the tens of thousands. The world reels in horror as a 75-year-old anti-nuclear taboo falls by the wayside.

Impossible? Unfortunately, it’s a little less so now that the Trump administration has made the Strangelovian decision to begin arming nuclear submarines with low-yield nuclear devices. Expressly designed for small-scale theaters of operation, such weapons are all too tempting for use against a regional power that refuses to bow to US diktat.

Low-yield means somewhere around five kilotons, a third of the power of the bombs that leveled Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Atomically speaking, this is hardly more than a firecracker. But such devices dwarf conventional weapons like the record-setting GBU-43/B MOAB ("Mother of all bombs") that the US dropped on an ISIS tunnel complex in Afghanistan in 2017. In a 2003 test, a MOAB prototype created a mushroom cloud visible from twenty miles away. Yet a five-kiloton bomb is 500 times greater.

It’s their Goldilocks size – not too big, not too small, but just right – that renders such nukes all the more dangerous. Since regular-sized nuclear warheads can range anywhere from 90 to 455 kilotons, their use only makes "sense" in the context of a global meltdown. Even if the fiercest conventional land war were to break out in Central Europe or on the Korean Peninsula, the result would be a boundary that even the most hard-pressed military commander would hesitate to transgress.

But low-yield nukes are all too useful in such circumstance and hence all too tempting. By lowering the nuclear threshold, they therefore make it all the easier to cross. Once it does so, the US would find itself stepping over it again and again. Instead of an immediate blowout, the upshot would a step-by-step escalation leading to the same end – not apocalypse now but apocalypse in a little while following a gradual buildup.

None of which is unprecedented. Tactical nukes have been around since the late 1950s when the US developed a recoilless gun – dubbed, inevitably, the "Davy Crockett" – capable of firing a sub-kiloton nuclear device a distance of twenty-five miles. Nuclear artillery shells, anti-tank weapons, and land mines followed. But as the first generation of tactical nukes approached obsolescence in the 1970s, it dawned on negotiators that the concept of limited nuclear warfare was illusory and that any such conflict would quickly turn into a full-scale nuclear exchange. Under Ronald Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev, they shifted their attention to locking in nuclear parity on a global basis.

The upshot was START I, the 1991 treaty that limited the US and Soviets to 6,000 strategic nuclear warheads each and sent tactical nukes plummeting from a US-Soviet total of 20,000 or 30,000 to under 2,500.

But then came "a worrisome comeback." In the wake of 9/11, the Bush II administration added six countries to the list of potential nuclear targets: "Axis of Evil" members North Korea, Iran, and Iraq plus Syria, Libya, and China.  In 2010, Barack Obama confirmed that there was now "a narrow range of contingencies" in which the US might launch a nuclear attack on Iran, while, in a 2016 exercise known as Global Thunder 17, the administration "war-gamed" how such a scenario might unfold. According to arms-control expert William M. Arkin, it began with Iran sinking an aircraft carrier and then using chemical weapons against US marines. When US Central Command requested a nuclear strike, a pair of B-2 stealth bombers stood by at the ready while the president figured out what to do.

But that wasn’t enough. Soon after taking office, Donald Trump instructed then-Defense Secretary James Mattis to devise a nuclear deterrence strategy that would be "appropriately tailored to deter 21st-century threats." The upshot was a sub-launched low-yield nuke that could strike Iran or North Korea in just ten or fifteen minutes as opposed to the eleven hours it would take a stealth bomber to deliver a nuclear payload from its home base in Missouri. Who could wait when a mini-holocaust was finally at hand?

In January 2019, the new warheads, dubbed the W76-2, began rolling off the line. Democrats vowed to block their deployment, but were too busy playing impeachment games to remember when budget time rolled around. The upshot was a 2020 defense budget that passed in December with massive Democratic support and, predictably, contained a line item allowing the W76-2 program to go forward. The Defense Department confirmed last week that the first sub-launched low-yield warhead had been deployed.

What now? Although the war threat in the Persian Gulf has receded, US policy remains stunningly reckless, as an investigation by New York Times reporter Alissa J. Rubin recently showed.

Rubin’s report concerns a Dec. 27 assault on a US airbase in northern Iraq that triggered a cascade of increasingly dangerous events: the Jan. 3 assassination of Iranian military commander Qassem Soleimani, a retaliatory Iranian missile attack in which 109 US personnel suffered brain damage, plus the accidental downing of a Ukrainian airliner with 176 passengers and crew members on board. But although the administration immediately blamed a pro-Iranian militia known as Khataib Hezbollah, Rubin’s on-the-scene reporting strongly suggested that the group was not responsible. Rather, the Dec. 27 attack was most likely the work of Khataib Hezbollah’s arch-enemy ISIS, which had long been active in the area and had carried three nearby attacks in the preceding ten days. Khataib Hezbollah, by contrast, had not maintained a local presence since 2014.

So the odds that pro-Iranian forces did it are nil. Yet Trump ordered the Soleimani assassination anyway. We can thus add him to the long list of US presidents who have used mis- or disinformation to launch phony wars. There’s Bush II who launched the 2003 invasion of Iraq on basis of bogus WMD’s; Bush I who launched the 1991 Gulf War on the basis of phony reports that Iraqi invaders were tossing premature babies out of Kuwaiti incubators; LBJ who commenced the Vietnam War on the basis of a cooked-up 1964 Gulf of Tonkin incident in which attacking North Vietnamese speedboats may have been nothing more than sonar bleeps bouncing off large waves, and so on.

It’s a list of horrors that show how unstoppable Washington’s pro-war enthusiasts can become when their bloodlust starts flowing. But toss in low-yield nukes capable of reaching a target in a matter of minutes, and the danger grows even worse – much, much worse. If the Persian Gulf is volatile now, imagine what it will be like after a "small" nuclear conflagration. Are low-yield nukes really the kind of toys we want in Donald Trump’s hands?

Daniel Lazare is the author of The Frozen Republic: How the Constitution Is Paralyzing Democracy (Harcourt Brace, 1996) and other books about American politics. He writes a weekly column for Antiwar.com. He has written for a wide variety of publications from The Nation to Le Monde Diplomatique and blogs about the Constitution and related matters at Daniellazare.com.